Wednesday 7 May 2008

Speak of an Angel...

...and you shall hear the fluttering of its wings. I think that's what the expression used to be, before the Great British cynicism and dark sense of humour altered it...

Before I start talking about another book I read in Northern Ireland, I must point you in the direction of the Carbon Copy's blog for today... have a look here... it's usually plain blue background etc., so
quite witty what he's done today, and made me double-take...

Elizabeth Taylor is a name which has been on m
y horizons for a few years now - and no, I don't mean Mrs. Burton, the actress, but the novelist of the same name. She's often mentioned on dovegreybooks, the online book discussion list I'm in, to the extent that I have four of her novels on my shelves, all unread. It seemed time to rectify this, so I took Angel away with me, devoured and loved it.

Well, I say loved. It was an incredibly sad novel.

Angel Deverell starts as a humourless yo
ung girl, intent on making her way out of her working class background, by fantasy if not by any other means. She finds a potential route out when she starts writing a novel in an exercise book - writing becomes compulsive, and before long she has finished her first romance. Elizabeth Taylor based Angel on similar contemporary romance novelists - Marie Correlli, Ethel M. Dell and so forth; all the people Q. D. Leavis so despised. Like them, Angel's style and scenarios are over the top and exaggerated, with minimal verisimilitude. Somehow, she is accepted by Gilbright & Brace publishers - Brace finds her absurd, but Theo Gilbright has an unavoidable fondness for Angel, despite her complete lack of humour, her unwarranted self-confidence, arrogance and fierce opposition to criticism:

(Theo:) 'I daresay I know more about the reading public than you, and you will take my word that I have an idea as to what will pass among the weakest of them. We publish for them, alas, 'the bread-and-milk brigade' my partner calls them. They decide. They bring the storms about our ears. For them we veil what is stark and tone down what is colourful and discard a lot that - for ourselves - we would rather keep. So
will you take away your manuscript for a while and see what you can do for us?'
'No,' said Angel.

Success greets her - a mixture of unquestioning loyalty from the uneducated, and amused delight from the over-educated. When she can afford to leave Volunteer Street, her working-class birthplace, however, she does not enter the sublime world she'd envisaged...

Angel takes us to the end of Angel's life, and, though the novel is onl
y about 250 pages long, Elizabeth Taylor packs so much in that it really feels like a saga - a compulsive one. Some of the most moving passages concern Angel's mother, as she moves with Angel to a 'better' neighbourhood, and loses all her lifelong friends:

'Either they put out their best china and thought twice before th
ey said anything, or they were defiantly informal - "You'll have to take us as you find us" - and would persist in making remarks like "I don't suppose you ever have bloaters up at Alderhurst" or "Pardon the apron, but there's no servants here to polish the grate." In each case, they were watching her for signs of grandeur or condescension. She fell into little traps they laid and then they were able to report to the neighbours. "It hasn't taken her long to start putting on side." She had to be especially careful to recognise everyone she met, and walked up the street with an expression of anxiety which was misinterpreted as disdain.'

Angel Deverell is never a likeable character; quite the reverse. Even so, Elizabeth Taylor creates in her a character of pathos, and it is difficult to take any pleasure in her downfalls, however deserved. It is testament to Taylor's talent that such an unpleasant protagonist can inhabit a thoroughly compelling novel. I shall certainly be making sure I read the other Elizabeth Taylor novels I have, though if they're all this sad, I'll be pacing them out.


  1. I thought 'Angel' probably the most unpleasant central character it has been my misfortune to encounter for a long long time! She was horrid! She treated all about her so very callously and cruelly. In this day she would have had a diagnosis to explain her behaviour. As it is, we are left with a sense of rage that anyone could behave like that. A little pity, but more rage.
    I couldn't put it down!

  2. I loved this one when I read it, only your review reminds me that was so long ago that I've forgotten all the plot. But I do remember this had one of my favourite lines of all time, which I'll have to paraphrase, but it's something about how nanny kept her madness, like Hamlet, so that she would not have to bend to the will of others. Elizabeth Taylor is real class.

  3. ET is one the great novelists of the 20th century IMO, and Angel is an extraordinary book -- not least in the way she handles this character who is certainly dysfunctional and pitiable but who you can't help feeling some sympathy with. 'Sympathy vs judgment' as some old critic once said of Browning's Dramatic Monologues? Do read some more of her novels!

  4. I think it is a mark of a good novelist who can make you 'appreciate' a dislikeable character! Isn't ET wonderful? I've only read a couple of her novels, but I plan on reading more. Definitely give Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont a try! It was one of my favorite books last year!

  5. Don't worry, Simon, Angel is completely different from Elizabeth Taylor's other books, although many of them contain something disturbing. I love her writing.

  6. I have this sitting on my bookshelf, hopefully I will get around to reading it soon. I believe it was made into a film last year.

    I have only read one ET Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, which I loved. The film is great too.

  7. The tone is quite different for ET, but Angel is by far my fav. There's something about the way she just doesn't give a damn. And oh!, the self delusion. Excellent recommendation.


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